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Hand-Me-Down Treasure by Robert Eilers, on Flickr

I knew it was coming. I’d heard my mom talking on the phone about it last week.

“Sure Helen, we’ll be glad to take a look through them.”

There was no need for me to ask. Being cousin number ten in a line of fifteen made me well familiar with the conversation they were having. Aunt Helen had clothes. Not just any clothes. These were hand-me-downs worn by my older cousins. Now I was in line to receive them.

The next day, four black, overstuffed garbage bags lay on my bed like poop from an elephant. I stared at them hoping they would go away.

“Okay Billy, let’s see what kind of clothes Aunt Helen sent you.”

With one motion mom turned over the first bag. A kaleidoscope of blue jeans, dress slacks, t-shirts, dress shirts, shorts, and socks tumbled onto the bed. I groaned.

“Now I don’t want to hear anything outta ya. You’re going to try everything on whether you like it or not. If it fits we’ll put it in one pile and what doesn’t will go back in the bag.”

“But mom, do I have to try on everything?” Trying on clothes was the furthest thing from my nine year old mind, but Mom always expected me to try every piece of clothing. She didn’t want to miss anything I could use. At least the socks she was more lenient about. Those she would allow me to try one pair of each color.

“Yes you do. Take your shirt off so we can get started.”

I growled, pulled my shirt off and threw it across the room. Mom had a blue polo ready and waiting. A small stain on the front caught my eye. I grabbed it and pulled it over my head. In an instant I was engulfed with the smell. No matter where hand-me-down clothes came from they always had the same musty smell all over them. I’d wondered if there was a hand-me-down spray used to protect clothes until I was big enough. They could come from Aunt Ruth who lived in the big house in the nice neighborhood. Or Aunt Helen’s whose house we seldom went to because of the neighborhood. No matter the house, the same smell was always there.

“Uck. They stink.”

“Of course they do. Now raise your arms.”

Mom had a certain way she made sure the clothes were a good fit. For shirts it was, “Raise your arms. Don’t want your belly to show.” For pants she would say, “Squat down. Is the crouch too tight? Don’t want anything splitting out.” She was the Richard Simmons of trying on clothes. Raise your arms now squat right down. One and two and two and two and three and two. Work it. Work it.

I worked it all afternoon. The clothes went on and off in a blur of cotton and polyester. My head became dizzy from the hand-me-down smell. Or maybe it was all the bending and squatting. It was hard to tell.

“Finally,” I said, relieved to be finished with the torture I’d just endured. A lone black shirt with gold stripes remained on the bed. Mom held it up for me to see. It was the Pittsburgh Steelers shirt I’d seen my cousin Vince wearing a couple years ago. My heart quickened. I loved that shirt. Begged and begged mom to get me a shirt just like it when I saw him wearing it.

“Well look what we have here. It’s a Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt.” Mom twisted it back and forth, teasing me with the cloth treasure. “They must have made a mistake putting this in here. I’ll have to call Helen to let her know.” I grabbed the shirt out of her hand and held it to my chest.

“No. It’s no mistake. What’s in the bags are mine. No take backs.”

Mom smiled at me. “Guess it’s not so bad going through hand-me-downs, now is it?”

“Huh? Oh, yea. Yea.” My attention was on the shirt. Two gold stripes on the sleeves. “Steelers” in gold letters across the front standing out against the black fabric not yet begun to fade. Underneath in white letters “Super Bowl XIV Champions”. It was beautiful.

“Are you going to try it on or just look at it?”

“Absolutely!” The shirt was over my head in an instant. Sweet heaven enveloped me. My arms slid through the sleeves with no trouble. The rest flowed down my body. And there was no smell.

“It looks a little big.”

“It’s perfect.”

“You’ll have to grow into it.”

“It’s mine.”